The Best Strategy for SAT Reading Comprehension

If you’re a parent and you’re looking for the best strategy for SAT reading comprehension, to help your student improve their SAT Reading score, I recommend that you read this post for yourself, then pass it on to your child, because it’s full of great info for them to start using right away.

If you want to improve your SAT Reading score and become a better test taker, look no further – we’ve got you covered.  In this article, we’ll help you to improve your score with an explanation of our best strategy for SAT Reading comprehension.

First, we’ll give you an overview of the strategy and explain why it works so well.  More importantly, we’ll include a sample passage, along with an explanation of how to apply this strategy and how to answer the questions that go along with it.

Overview of Our Best Strategy for SAT Reading Comprehension

On the SAT Reading section, remember that the passage contains all of the information and ideas you need to answer the questions.

You may need to make some inferences, interpret some language, and draw some conclusions along the way.  However, the key is to read in such a way that you can:

  • absorb the main idea of the passage and understand the author’s arguments
  • understand the purpose of each paragraph, and how they build on one another
  • find the important details in the passage

Reading too carefully and trying to memorize every detail won’t work, since you don’t have much time on this section of the test. For the best strategy for SAT reading comprehension, continue reading below:

We have a much better way to read the passage – we call it the “paragraph summary” strategy.

There are three main elements to reading and understanding a passage using this strategy.  For each paragraph you read, follow these steps:

  1. First, read the paragraph to get a sense of its purpose.  Don’t worry about memorizing every detail – you won’t need every detail for the questions (besides, that would take too much time).
  2. Then, write a short summary of the paragraph.  We want to be careful with our time, so the summary should be a short sentence – no more than that.
  3. Finally, ask yourself “How does this paragraph relate to what I have read so far?”  In other words, how does the paragraph advance the story or build the author’s argument?

For the first paragraph, be on the lookout for main ideas or foreshadowing of what the author will discuss.  This is a great test-taking strategy to implement, and as you progress to later paragraphs, the main idea will become clear if it is not already.

Benefits of the Paragraph Summary Strategy

Before we get into an example of how to use the paragraph summary strategy, we want to explain why it works so well.

First, think about the types of questions that you see on the SAT Reading section.  They include questions that ask about:

  • The main idea of the passage as a whole
  • The purpose of a specific paragraph in the passage
  • A specific detail from the passage
  • Inferences about what the author might think about something

Now we can see why our strategy helps with these types of questions:

  • By connecting the paragraphs to one another and noting how the author builds their argument, you are getting a sense of the main idea as you read.
  • By summarizing the paragraphs, you can begin to get an idea of the purpose of each one.
  • If you do not know exactly where to find an important detail, your paragraph summaries will give you an idea of where to look.
  • By summarizing paragraphs in your own words and thinking about how they are connected, you “put yourself in the author’s shoes” and get a better sense of their point-of-view.
How to Apply the Paragraph Summary Strategy to a Real SAT Reading Passage

For each paragraph, the “Summary” is the brief sentence I wrote down to summarize a passage (step 2 in the process outlined above). The “Analysis” is what went through my mind while reading and trying to connect a paragraph to earlier ones (step 3 in the process outlined above).

Introductory Text

Just by reading the introductory text for this passage, we can predict that it will have to do with alternatives to automobiles (e.g. “Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile”).

Paragraph 1

  • Summary: Lots of cars, but most people use public transportation.
  • Analysis: This first paragraph seems to be starting the argument we predicted from the introductory text – that public transportation can replace cars.
Paragraph 2

  • Summary: Stats.  Public transportation is huge, and private cars are rare.
  • Analysis: This second paragraph uses statistics to prove the author’s point in the first paragraph: public transportation is used by many people.  Even with so many cars, private ownership is out of the ordinary.
Paragraph 3

  • Summary: Cons of public transportation – dirty, slow, crowded.
  • Analysis: Why would the author bring up the cons of public transportation if she supports it?  Perhaps she brings up these objections to address them later?
Paragraph 4

  • Summary: Public transportation can be fast, efficient, and pleasant.  Examples.
  • Analysis: As we predicted, the author brought up cons of public transportation in Paragraph 3 to address those concerns here.  The author argues that public transportation can work well when done right, and cites numerous examples in different cities and countries.  The author also mentions bicycles (“cycle-path freeways”).
Paragraph 5

  • Summary: Millennials and Boomers are using more public transportation.
  • Analysis: This paragraph connects to Paragraph 4 by explaining why public transportation is more pleasant: Millennials can use iPods, etc. to drown out noise and be someplace else while getting around.  Even Boomers want to walk or bike as they get older, opting for cities and perhaps getting tired of driving everywhere. The conclusion suggests that public transportation will be used more as it becomes more available.

Looking back over our paragraph summaries, we can see that each summary is less than 10 words long.  You should aim for exactly this type of brief summary when reading the passages yourself, as that is the best strategy for SAT reading comprehension.

Keep each paragraph summary short! If you find yourself rewriting the whole paragraph or copying down elaborate details, you are doing it wrong

If we quickly reread the paragraph summaries all together, we can see the general theme (main purpose) of the passage emerge:

Despite so many cars, lots of people use public transportation.  Some systems are underdeveloped, but it can be done right, and in those cases, more people will opt to use it.

Now let’s see if we can use the notes we took to help us to answer some questions from this passage.

How to Apply the Paragraph Summary Strategy to Real SAT Reading Questions

Question 11: What function does the third paragraph (lines 20-34) serve in the passage as a whole?

Answer: Before we even look at the answers, we can look at our summary of passage 3 to get an idea.  We wrote “Cons of public transportation: dirty, slow, crowded.”  Let’s look at the answer choices and see which ones match up best.

A.)   It acknowledges that a practice favored by the author of the passage has some limitations.

The author does mention some limitations (cons) of public transportation systems (some are dirty, slow, and crowded).  So far, the author has stated facts and statistics suggesting that public transportation is widely used. Based on the introductory text (Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile), we can conclude that the author does favor public transportation.  This is the correct answer.

B.)    It illustrates with detail the arguments made in the first two paragraphs of the passage.  This is a “partly true, partly false” answer.  While the author does give some details in Paragraph 3, this paragraph does not support any arguments made in Paragraphs 1 and 2 (we can quickly see this by reading our summaries for Paragraphs 1, 2, and 3).  Instead, Paragraph 3 lists the cons of public transportation. We can eliminate this answer.

C.)    It gives an overview of a problem that has not been sufficiently addressed by the experts mentioned in the passage.  Again, this answer is partly true and partly false.  Although the author suggests a problem (dirty, slow, crowded public transportation), there is no mention of experts in the passage.  We can eliminate this answer.

D.)   It advocates for abandoning a practice for which the passage as a whole provides mostly favorable data.  This answer is also partly true and partly false.  The passage does provide favorable data for public transportation.  However, it is not meant to suggest we should abandon public transportation (for evidence of this, look at the first sentence of Paragraph 4: “It doesn’t have to be like this.”)  We can eliminate this answer.

Question 12: Which choice does the author explicitly cite as an advantage of automobile travel in North America?

Answer: Before we even look at the answers, we can go back to our paragraph summaries and quickly see that Paragraph 3 mentions “cons of public transportation”.  This tells us that Paragraph 3 is most likely where the author would mention “pros of automobile travel”. After all, if public transportation is dirty, crowded, and slow, this must be in comparison to something.  Now we know where to look for our answer.

A.)    Environmental impact.  When the author mentions dirty (ill-maintained) public transportation systems, it refers to lack of cleanliness, not necessarily environmental impact (pollution).  We can eliminate this answer.

B.)    Convenience.  This is a trap answer.  Although it may be easier and more convenient to use an automobile to travel, but the author does not mention this explicitly (always pay careful attention to the wording of the original question!)  We can eliminate this answer.

C.)    Speed.  In the last sentence of this paragraph, the author says “Hopping in a car almost always gets you to your destination more quickly.”  This suggests that speed in an advantage of automobile travel. This is the correct answer.

D.)   Cost.  The author does not explicitly mention the cost of automobile travel or suggest that it is cheaper than public transportation.  We can eliminate this answer.

Can you see how our paragraph summaries have already helped us out tremendously on these questions?

On the first one, our summary of Paragraph 3 helped us to find the purpose (function) of the paragraph in the passage.

On the second one, a quick scan of our paragraph summaries told us which paragraph to look at more closely (Paragraph 3) to find our answer.  This is the difference between rereading a paragraph versus scrambling through the entire passage!

Your paragraph summaries may not answer every single question for you, but in many cases, they will tell you where to look for the necessary information, as that is one of the best strategies for SAT reading comprehension.

Now, an exercise for the reader: use the paragraph summaries we wrote above, and see if they help you to answer the remaining questions for this passage.

After you do that, read another passage using the method we outlined above.  Then, use your summaries to answer the questions that go along with the passage.


As with any SAT Reading strategy, this one will become more natural with practice.  Don’t just try this best strategy for SAT reading comprehension once and give up.

Give yourself enough time to practice and refine this strategy.  If you do, it will become automatic by the time your test date rolls around.  Then you’ll have no problem on the SAT Reading section.

Looking for more ways to take your performance on the SAT or the ACT to the next level? Schedule a call with one of our Student Success Advisors to discuss a test prep plan.

By |2020-02-14T17:44:29+00:00January 8th, 2020|SAT, Uncategorized|

About the Author: